What Is Grief Counseling? Techniques and How It Helps
What Is Grief Counseling?
Accept the Loss
Work Through the Pain
Adjust to Life
Maintain a Connection
Types of Grief
- Complicated grief is a type of grief in which the symptoms are persistent (lasting up to a year or longer) and intense, making it hard for sufferers to function normally. People experiencing complicated grief may feel hopeless or detached and are preoccupied with thoughts of who or what they’ve lost. Estimates vary, but according to WebMD, between 5% and 10% of bereaved people experience complicated grief.
- Maladaptive grief is a type of grief in which individuals are consumed by their loss and attempt to cope in ways that are harmful. They may try to avoid reminders of what they’ve lost or engage in self-destructive behaviors.
- Broken heart syndrome is a type of grief in which the stress caused by grief takes a physical toll. With intense grief, the body may release stress hormones that cause part of a person’s heart to swell and beat irregularly, causing chest pain similar to a heart attack.
- Depression is one of the stages of grief. Certain symptoms of grief, such as anxiety or hopelessness, can look like depression, but they’re different. Grief-stricken people may experience depression, which can make the grieving process worse. Signs of depression include trouble sleeping, fatigue, and poor appetite, along with feelings of self-pity or loneliness.
Benefits of Grief Counseling
Reduces Anxiety, Guilt, and Depression
Helps People Understand the Grieving Process
Reminds People There’s More Than One Way to Grieve
Helps People Honor the Deceased Without Trauma
Helps People Understand That Grief Can Be Caused by Different Kinds of Loss
Guides Patients Back to Self-Care
Different Grief Counseling Techniques and Interventions
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
Complicated Grief Treatment
- Understanding and accepting grief
- Managing emotional pain
- Planning for the future
- Strengthening existing relationships
- Telling the story of the loss
- Learning to live with reminders
- Creating a connection to memories of the deceased
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy
Grief Counseling for Children
- Birth to 6 months: Children at this age have no concept of death, though they may experience feelings of separation and abandonment, which can cause anxiety or distress. These feelings and experiences may lay a foundation for a future understanding of death.
- 6 months to 2 years: Children at this age may begin to grasp the idea of death, but don’t fully understand it. If someone close to them dies, they may react with anger or experience severe rejection. They may believe the deceased is lost and try to actively seek the person out.
- 2 to 5 years: Children at this age don’t comprehend that death is irreversible, or final. Because of their still limited understanding, they may appear to have a subdued reaction and return to normal behavior sooner than a more mature child.
- 5 to 10 years: Children at this age begin to understand that death is final and that the person who’s died isn’t going to return. As they get older, they may accept that death is not only final but also inevitable and that all people eventually die, including themselves. This may lead to them worrying about their loved ones and attempting to contextualize their own death by asking questions like “Who will feed my pets?” They may be afraid of death and invent stories or jokes to protect themselves.
Helping Children Understand Grief and Loss
Use Concrete Language
Family Cultural Background
Integration of Faith and Belief Systems
Develop Rituals to Remember Loved Ones
Provide Information on the Grief Process
Let the Child Take the Lead
Grief Counseling for Teens
- Teens may retreat inward in the wake of a loss and struggle to express their thoughts and emotions. Simply starting the conversation and providing teens with a safe space to talk about what they’re feeling can help them start the process of working through their grief.
- Similar to younger children, teens should take the lead in their grief process. Getting teens to open up is an important first step, but counselors and adults can best help them by acting as listeners and learners and allowing them to be their guide.
- Each teen’s grief experience is highly personal. Some may respond with extreme sadness and crying, while others may use humor and laughter as a coping mechanism. Grief counseling should help them understand that what they’re going through is normal and that there’s no correct way to grieve. Effective counseling validates their emotions and allows them to process grief on their own timeline.
- Teens’ social environment — the relationships they have with family, friends, and community — has a major impact on how they respond to and cope with loss. Understanding the importance of social connections and how they influence grief is essential. Counseling for bereaved teens should look beyond individual coping and factor these relationships into treatment, such as through family programs or group therapy.
Grief Counseling for Adults
- Talk about the deceased. People often want or need to talk about the person they’ve lost. Sharing memories of their loved one — including the deceased’s likes and dislikes, habits, and even faults — can help people work through grief. It may be the first time they’ve had an opportunity to properly express their thoughts and feelings about the deceased in a truly safe space. Counselors may ask bereaved people what advice their loved one might give them if the loved one could speak to them or how the loved one would want them to live their lives.
- Distinguish grief from trauma. Counseling can help the bereaved separate their grief from the shock and pain that the memory of their loved one’s death causes. Some people become fixated on these memories — images of the deceased lying in a hospital bed or the phone call informing them of the death — and can’t move past them to begin to grieve in a healthy way. Counseling can help grief sufferers minimize the trauma associated with these memories and recontextualize them to begin the grief process.
- Deal with guilt. Guilt can be a serious issue obstructing the grieving process, particularly for adults. Spouses may feel guilty over things they did or didn’t do or say when their significant other was alive, or that they’re not grieving as much as they should be. Counselors can support bereaved adults by helping them understand how these thoughts are unproductive and suggesting that the best way to honor their loved one’s memory is to live a full life. They may encourage patients to take breaks from grieving and incorporate rituals that pay tribute to the deceased, possibly helping the bereaved overcome guilt.
Family Grief Counseling
Different Ways of Grieving
Grief Counseling Resources
- SAMHSA’s National Helpline: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is a free and confidential treatment referral and information service that provides support for individuals facing mental health issues or substance use disorders, as well as support for their families.
- Medical News Today, “Types of Online Grief Counseling and How They Can Help”: This article provides information for pursuing grief counseling online, including therapy apps, forums, and support groups.
- National Alliance on Mental Illness: The country’s largest grassroots mental health organization, NAMI provides an abundance of information about mental illness, as well as links to additional resources.
- HealGrief: An online social support network for the bereaved, bringing people together to help them grieve and heal. Through the site, people can write an obituary or light a virtual candle for a lost loved one.
- American Counseling Association, Grief and Loss Resources: The American Counseling Association provides numerous resources for counselors and the public, with links to journal articles and practice briefs about grief and loss.
- American Association of Suicidology: AAS, a nonprofit that advocates for suicide prevention, develops professional training programs for healthcare providers regarding suicidal individuals.
- Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, Webinar: Grieving Styles and Family Dynamics: Communicating with Children and Teens: TAPS provides support to people grieving the death of a loved one in the military. This webinar examines grieving in children and teens and how death impacts family dynamics.
- MDPI, “A Biopsychosocial Approach to Grief, Depression, and the Role of Emotional Regulation”: This journal article examines the grief process through the lens of the biopsychosocial model to explore grief’s impact on psychopathophysiology.